By Emily DeLetter
The main gathering room of the Catholic Action Center is crowded. It’s Sunday, and more than 100 people are sitting and standing at various donated tables, chairs and couches around the room, waiting for the weekly meeting to begin.
Promptly at one o’clock, Catholic Action Center Co-director Ginny Ramsey claps her hands together. Several people around the room begin to shush others, and eventually the noise ceases enough for Ramsey to speak without a microphone.
“Would anyone like to start us off in prayer?”
An older man sitting in a large chair towards the back of the room raises his hand. He stands, thanking God for the weather, the community and the center. There’s a murmured ‘Amen’ around the room, and Ramsey starts again.
After a few announcements concerning new cameras in the small park attached to the center, access to coats and an update about housing for the winter, meeting attendees started to form long, winding lines to sign up for their weekly chores as a part of the Community Service Team.
“Everyone has to belong somewhere,” Ramsey said.
The Catholic Action Center is a 24/7 day and night homeless shelter open to men and women 18 and over that offers onsite mental health care, addiction services and permanent housing advocacy. It first opened its doors in 2000 with a soup kitchen near downtown Lexington.
The website states that in the 17 years it has been open, over 5.5 million meals have been served, 2.5 million items of clothing given, and 990,000 nights of shelter provided by over 200,000 volunteers.
But it’s more than just a homeless shelter where a person can get a meal or a place to sleep at night. With its 130 beds completely full nearly every night, the Center has become a place to weather the storm.
Additional spaces for a food pantry and “community inn” opened in the following years. In April 2017, the Center moved, consolidating its three locations spread out around Lexington to one building on Industry Road.
The core mission of the Center is based off of the Catholic Worker Movement, which had been led by social activist Dorothy Day. Completely funded by donations and volunteer work, the Center receives no government funding or special assistance from the Catholic Dioceses of Lexington. There are no paid employees, and all work is done by volunteers.
Ramsey, a retired accountant, works full-time for the Center for no salary.
Volunteers perform a variety of tasks both in and outside the Center and are vital to keeping the operation running smoothly.
Thomas Caudill, known affectionately as “Brother Thomas,” helps drive a van to known homeless spots around town. He was reluctant to disclose the location of those spots, as they are frequently broken up by police and make them more difficult to track.
The “Compassionate Caravan” makes frequent trips during extreme weather and offers to take people staying outside to the Center for the night. They also recently began a program to hand out coats and identifying reflective arm bands for people to wear outside after dark.
The idea started after a homeless man was hit and killed in July by a car after crossing the street at night.
“A lot of these people don’t have any family members to stand up for them,” Caudill said, as he prepared the first round of vans to go out. “That’s what we’re trying to do. With the caravan, we’re going around to tell them to be more careful and watch out for cars at night.”
A New Move, A New Beginning
The Catholic Action Center first opened its doors in 2000 with a soup kitchen near downtown Lexington.
After almost 20 years of the shelter spread between three locations around Lexington, Ramsey said a move to one area was a necessity.
Ramsey said they looked at 87 different places before choosing their current location, right in the middle of multiple businesses right off of Industry Road.
“This is a good location,” Ramsey said. “We wanted to be in a location our people could reach.”
The LexTran Bus has a stop close to the Center. An adult 20-ride pass is $15. Senior citizens, people with disabilities and Medicare card holders can ride for 50 cents, according to their website.
“We looked at it [the building], and realized it had the space, but it would take a lot to convert it,” Ramsey said.
The property was bought from the City of Lexington and assumed all renovation costs.
Renovations to the building included adding showers, laundry, multiple bedrooms, a commercial kitchen, and an enclosed park attached to the building for only residents to use.
There are multiple businesses including a bakery and furniture reupholstery store. A police station also sits one street behind the Center. A daycare is directly across the street.
Because of the close proximity of the daycare and the center, the only people denied entrance to the Center are sex offenders.
There was backlash from the neighboring businesses when they learned of plans last year to build the center.
“Our people have a right to be here,” Ramsey said.
Neighbors complained of people loitering in the parking lots near their businesses. Some claimed that customers were afraid to leave their cars and come inside.
In an attempt to “be good neighbors,” several meetings have been set up between the Center, neighboring businesses, and the police.
The Community Service Team program started when the new location opened in April 2017 with the intention of making the place seem more like a community and less like a shelter. By competing two two-hour shifts of chores a week, anyone who signs up at their weekly Sunday meetings is guaranteed a bed at night.
Chores available included laundry, cleaning bathrooms, working at the front desk, and keeping the “Daddy Joe Taylor Park” outdoor space clean.
Sarah McGhee, a member of the CST and a resident of the Center since April holds a leadership position within the team.
McGhee helps during the Sunday meetings, signing people up for chores (which she must also complete). She’s worked everywhere from cleaning the gathering room to helping in the kitchen, but loves working at the front desk the most.
“I’m a people person,” McGhee said. “They like me up there because I help keep the peace.”
McGhee kept to her word as a peacekeeper, getting up several times during chore signups to settle disputes with people waiting in her line.
“I think people here value my opinion,” McGhee said. “I’ll try to intervene and soothe the situation without violence.”
McGhee recently applied and was accepted into housing. Within the next few weeks, she will begin the process of moving into her own place.
“Everyone deserves a home,” McGhee said.
One person waiting in line to sign up for a shower room or bathroom chore was Eilleen Mullins.
Signing up for a job with the Community Service Team is necessary for Mullins, who has been using services provided by the Catholic Action Center for the past year.
Mullins said her string of bad luck began when she drove to Lexington from Prestensburg in Eastern Kentucky last year to visit her father. She said her car broke down and was towed when she failed to produce the money to have it moved. She said a laptop and several textbooks worth hundreds of dollars were also stolen.
She spends most of her days at coffee shops, using the LexTran Bus to get around the city.
“My background is a lot different,” Mullins said. “I think it’s unfair to some people that I’m here.”
She said others felt she had an advantage because she had a job in eastern Kentucky and has family living in Lexington.
She has been staying at the Catholic Action Center at night while she searches for a job during the day.
Mullins has not always completed her required chores, and said she has sometimes arrived at the Center at night to find there was no bed reserved for her.
“Sometimes I think there’s favoritism here,” Mullins said. “But I’m thankful that she [Ramsey] has let me stay.”
An Electric Future
In June, the Center became one of the first homeless shelters in the country to install solar panels on its roof. The project was completed through donations by Lexington-based heating and cooling company Synergy LLC.
The decision to install solar panels came after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accords in June. The Catholic Action Center felt it needed to take action and do their part to help the environment.
The Center invested $75,000 into the solar panels, and Ramsey said she hopes they will get a return on their investment in the next five to seven years.
The move in April drastically brought down the cost of their utilities, but Ramsey said the solar energy could save them thousands of dollars every year.
“Not only will this save money, but it’s the right thing to do for the environment,” Ramsey said. “The Catholic Church has supported action on climate change, and we have to do what we can to protect God’s creation.”
There are continued efforts to be environmentally friendly inside, including separate bins for trash and recycling. One position for a CST member is to clean up community gathering spaces and recycle the appropriate items.
“It might not seem like much, but we do our part,” Ramsey said. “We serve our community, we serve our environment.”